The Rosett Report

Your Tax Dollars and UNRWA's Lobbying Shop in Washington

At Geneva-based UN Watch, the invaluable Hillel Neuer reminds us that the head of the Advisory Commission for the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) is none other than Syria. That bit of UN depravity, together with a recent visit to Washington, D.C. by UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krahenbuhl,  suggest it is high time to revisit the curious matter of why UNRWA these days maintains an office in Washington.

You remember UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, a.k.a. the UN outfit with schools in Gaza that have doubled as rocket depots for terrorists attacking Israel. Opened in 1950 as a temporary jobs and aid program for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA has become an ever-expanding fixture of the UN and the Middle East, a de facto patron of Hamas in Gaza, and welfare-dispenser for what is today a population of some 5 million “registered Palestinian refugees” — a project that down the generations has helped foster both a Palestinian culture of grievance and dependency, and money and jobs for UNRWA itself. At the UN, all other refugees come under the aegis of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which seeks to resettle them. Only the Palestinians have a dedicated agency that has turned refugee status into a bizarre form of hereditary entitlement.

It’s bad enough that UNRWA is still operating in the Middle East. But what’s it doing with an office in, of all places, Washington? UNRWA already fields an office right up the thruway, at the UN’s massive headquarters in New York. Why the need for yet another, in Washington?

Washington is not a city known for large populations of those Palestinian refugees UNRWA is supposed to be helping. But Washington is the conduit through which billions of American taxpayer dollars flow annually to various operations of the UN, including hundreds of millions to UNRWA — appropriated by Congress and dispensed by the State Department.

But, it seems more is always preferred.

In 2011 UNRWA opened an office in downtown Washington, choosing a venue located conveniently between the State Department and Capitol Hill. This office does not service “registered Palestinian refugees.” It represents UNRWA’s interests in Washington, and reports on Washington’s doings to UNRWA. It has been staffed since early days by two Americans, both steeped in the ways of Washington: Chris McGrath, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid, and Matthew Reynolds, who previously worked as an assistant secretary for legislative affairs in the State Department.

In other words, there are plenty of signs that UNRWA’s Washington office serves as a lobbying shop. That ought to raise some big questions, as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin noted back in 2012. The U.S. is the largest contributor to UNRWA, pledging, for instance, $408 million for 2014, which was more than one-third of all contributions to UNRWA for that period. UNRWA is spending some of its resources to run an office in Washington. Money being fungible, presumably some portion of the funds bankrolling that UNRWA office come from U.S. tax dollars appropriated by Congress. It is against U.S. law for money appropriated by Congress to be used in ways intended to influence laws and appropriations by Congress.

UNRWA’s Washington office has in years past been less than open or transparent to the media. UNRWA officers have largely deflected questions, especially about their own operations in the U.S. capital. So how do we know what’s going on there? Well, there were the job descriptions posted about five years ago, when UNRWA was setting up the office.

Those once-detailed job descriptions are now listed simply as closed, meaning the posts have been filled. But still floating around in easy view is an UNRWA posting on the internet “seeking a qualified intern to support the operations of the Washington Representative Office.” Unlike the regular staff positions, this internship is unpaid (the posting is also, as far as I can see, undated — though it must have gone up since the office opened a few years ago). But what’s interesting is the “DESCRIPTION OF DUTIES AND RESPONSIBILITIES” that UNRWA expects this intern will carry out in order to help the paid UNRWA staff.

These include:

“Researching and tracking legislation as it relates to UNRWA and other issues in the Middle East.”

“Assisting with representing the interests of UNRWA vis-a-vis Washington, DC-based government and nongovernmental entities, with particular reference to the US Congress and the U.S. State Department;”

“Attending Congressional hearings, briefings and other special events both on the Hill and within the broader NGO community;”

“Assisting with arranging visits to Washington, DC by senior UNRWA officials.”

And, my favorite:

“Drafting memos to headquarters regarding legislation, hearings, and other developments in Congress.”

It would be interesting to see what’s in those memos. UNRWA does not report to Washington, it reports to the UN General Assembly. So what is it about the doings of Congress, in particular, that so fascinates the UNRWA top brass, back in the Middle East? Why such an appetite for detailed research and tracking and reports and memos on the U.S. legislature?

May we please hear more about such research projects –and elbow rubbing, and DC field trips — by UNRWA? Surely UNRWA’s Commissioner-General Krahenbuhl should be willing to share those internal memos and other research on Washington, unedited and in full, with the American public that funds more than one-third of UNRWA’s activities?

If the idea is that UNRWA is simply tracking the activities of Washington, what’s to hide? At the very least, surely Congress itself, object of such lavish attentions by UNRWA’s Washington office, should return the favor, ask what’s really going on, and disclose its findings to the public. Seriously, what’s going on here, and does it comply with U.S. law?